Justice League: NOT Just Whatever It Means To You

August 11, 2008

So everyone – really, only those who care to look and offer an opinion – is a-twitter about Natalie Barnes’ painting “Justice League”, which won a silver medal (is that equivalent to second prize?) in this year’s JCDC Visual Arts competition. As shown below, the painting depicts [a handful of] our national dons as wannabe superheroes, who set out in their pretty european suits to rescue the masses from the plagues and various disasters that befall us.

What I do love is that the work is drawing in people to see this painting, and others, that are on view at the National Gallery. The painting won the “Viewers Vote” apparently. What I don’t know and can’t discern is the tenor of the conversations about the painting.

If you used to read comic books, you will recognize the depiction as a variation on the Fantastic Four. Natalie Barnes’s piece is certainly part of a time-honoured tradition among politically-astute artists and activists in the U.S. who often use these comic-book caricatures to critique the amateurish and juvenile attitudes among reform-minded politicians who love to represent themselves – and often treated – as caped crusaders who are taking on the Evil Hordes and detritus of modernity: prostitutes, gamblers, progressive sex educators, immigrants, homosexuals, poor people, liberals, intellectuals, people of color, human rights and anti-war activists et al.

Ms. Barnes’s work is reminiscent of one other Jamaican artist, the photographer Renee Cox’s superhero series, where she imagines herself as the one doing the saving. Then there’s Dulce Pinzon’s work that is a scathing critique of the exploitation of immigrants in the US. And then, there may be some interesting comparisons to draw with the latest Batman flick over which there has been too much excitement. I haven’t seen it (my favourite superheroes are not men), and don’t plan to. But if you did see it, tell us what you think.

Read in that light (rather than our typical insular, suicide-inducing practices) Ms. Barnes’s painting is certainly a hilarious and yet serious, timely, dead-on critique of the ways that our own home-grown politicians love to see themselves as our saviours, and how Jamaicans even at 46+ years, are constantly looking to be saved by someone on high. If its not Jesus, then it might as well be the J-Team who imagine themselves (in a characteristically limited way) as fictional characters invented in the US and in outfits probably made in China. The original transnational poppyshows!

This is definitely an image that scholars and artist-practitioners will look to in the future. I can’t wait for her to produce posters and giclee prints from this painting. I can see a whole cottage industry emerging from these: calendars, book covers, t-shirts, you name it. Small Axe will probably get first dibs.

From reading the coverage though – which is different from what is actually happening on the ground, as it were – its funny how ideas circulate and are given form here through the lenses of the media reportage.

Based on how the painting and its reception is being framed, it’s not clear to me that many folks get the critique being offered by the work. The reports, lie much of the narrow debates about what constitutes “art” in Jamaica, are tending to situate Barnes’ piece as some laudable form of ‘high art’, as if this concept has never been executed anywhere else before.

So, in true colonial fashion, The Royal Court led by His Highness Bruce Golding summons a Special Viewing of “That Painting That Has Been Given the Title Justice League by the One Artist a Natalie Barnes of Kingston Jamaica.” (By the way, why is this the first time that Golding is seeing the work? Isn’t it part of his responsibility to view [some of] the works on display at the national competitions??) And they look closely to evaluate just how well the artist is trained in her craft, and if she is truly an Artist by how well she is able to capture the true likeness of the said crusaders, and want to know whether she really wants to say that they are indeed true superheroes of our time, or is she being just a bit facetious to imagine that they are like such superheroes, who we know are just figments of somebody’s imagination from far away. Poppyshows indeed.

And the one Ms. Barnes, even after “showing her hand” in the Gleaner’s, August 3 piece, clearly sees how she is about to be propelled into the land of the famous and wealthy artists who have been given the official blessing of the State and the tastemakers, provided that she does not alienate or piss them off or give a hint that her intentions are anything else but honourable.

So, in today’s article in the Gleaner, she with her cunny self does a 180, and totally shies away from claiming her work for what it is – an incredibly subversive piece that shows how the emperor has no clothes. That is, our mout-a-massy so-called justice-doers are at their core a fantasy that was created and given substance in someone else’s (racial) imagination, and which we have willingly co-opted without thought. Instead, Ms. Barnes resorts to the sacharrinely delivered coy “whatever it means to you” gesture when asked what she was thinking when she created this piece. You know, Ms. Barnes, it would be nice if you used these opportunities to say what you have to say rather than resorting to this cloak-and-dagger crap. I guess she too is enamoured of the PM giving her attention. She’s probably hoping he’ll buy it.

[Oh god, please do not let this work fall into the hands of one of those folks. Me a beg yuh!]

If Ms. Barnes keeps up this performance, she will certainly achieve her intentions, which is to make everyone like her enough to pay her and give her a studio somewhere so she can create more art that can be consumed by the public. But then, there is the chance that she will probably become more like the company she will keeping, and I don’t know if that will bode well for her work in the future. Just look at Laura Facey-Cooper for a good example of how not to be as an artist. Access to the master’s tools is really not enough to initiate the kind of critical introspection and action that Ms. Barnes is calling for in her more revelatory moments. I think she gets that. I hope she remembers that.

Of course, there’s much more to be said about this painting and the kinds of issues it raises for how Jamaican artists see themselves in relation to the society and the world, and for how we relate to art in our daily struggle for dignity and a decent quality of life. Your turn….

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12 Responses to “Justice League: NOT Just Whatever It Means To You”

  1. ESTEBAN AGOSTO REID Says:

    Looking forward to seeing this painting by Ms. Natalie Barnes!!

  2. lisa moore Says:

    What is your problem long bench – as far as I can see the artist has spoken and quite eloqently with oil and canvas!! – Who are you to define Ms Barnes’ agenda, who are you to demand a response.

    When I view a piece of work especially pieces with socio-political commentary I do not need the artist to tell me what to think – as my interpretation will be informed by my personal experiences! Art is subjective and if we need for arists to say what they are thinking each time they put out a piece then we are waiting to be saved or guided by ”politicians, Jesus, the J-Team or the artists”

    And if one of the over 40’s choose to purchase Justice League – so be it a talented young artist committed to her craft will make some money!!! What’s wrong with that tell me – are you frustrated artist – let’s celebrate the bravery of this incredibly talented young sister.

  3. longbench Says:

    Lisa – I don’t know what you are responding to, really. This is my blog; I posted my thoughts. I didn’t tell you what to think, and am not sure why you think you should tell me what to think. I am not a passive consumer of anything; neither do I genuflect to popular opinion or sentiment. That does not mean I have a problem; it means I am a thinking citizen. And when I meet Ms. Barnes I will ask her any questions I have, which I am perfectly free and entitled to doing as a thinking citizen. I believe in engaging with my environment and the people in it. I am sorry that you think I should just shut my mouth and accept what I am told and given.

  4. Wayne Rodney Says:

    It is unnecessary for the artist to explain the work any further than she did. To expect Miss Barnes to catalogue this or any other composition would be setting left brained analytical limitations to something that does not adhere to compartmentalization. It would be a travesty to the work and the artist, because a painting is neither this nor that, it is a multiplicity of things in its own constitution. Furthermore when the viewer opens up a dialogue with the work they too bring their own concepts into the mix, and the understanding they have of the work is relative to their own ideas. Which brings me to the point, that for a thing to be truly understood it must be felt. A thing must be experienced internally, because when information is spoon fed to you it detracts from the true meaning, something is always lost. People have unfortunately clung to words and missed the bigger picture, which has resulted in worldwide turmoil and atrocities.
    For Natalie Barnes to explain her work, even if she so desired, she would have to reveal her process, her most intimate thoughts on the matter, she would have to detail the rationale for all of the colours and visual elements in the work, and expose many aspects of her life that she may not care to. I know with utmost certainty that at the end of the day, after an exhausting psycho-analytical expose, something would still be missing from the meaning of the work. People would then approach the work with prejudice. The funny thing about that is the fact that they would all form their own ideas about what it means anyway, and instead of the work being critiqued, ultimately Natalie would be critiqued for being a human being. So what the artist has said was appropriate. You have proved it yourself by posting this blog with all of your interesting opinions and comparisons therein. Do not seek to deprive the rest of the world what you have experienced, by forcing the artist to subscribe to your notion of what this painting means.

  5. longbench Says:

    Wayne:

    Thanks for your comments. However, the excerpt below indicates that you missed the point I was making in the post:

    “For Natalie Barnes to explain her work, even if she so desired, she would have to reveal her process, her most intimate thoughts on the matter, she would have to detail the rationale for all of the colours and visual elements in the work, and expose many aspects of her life that she may not care to. I know with utmost certainty that at the end of the day, after an exhausting psycho-analytical expose, something would still be missing from the meaning of the work….Do not seek to deprive the rest of the world what you have experienced, by forcing the artist to subscribe to your notion of what this painting means.”

    The response “whatever it means to you” seems entirely appropriate for those who want to believe that engaging with any work of art is always an individual cerebral activity and that its meaning is entirely up to the viewer. We know this is not the only way that meanings are constructed, even if we continue to defend that claim.

    To ask the artist to talk about the context of the work is *not* the same as her providing some “psychoanalytical expose” or prancing around naked in public so as to reveal one’s self in entirety. Indeed, caricaturing the question in this way is a rather problematic move. I detect a certain elitist bent in responses such as yours on this blog and other places; whenever someone asks a question about “high culture”, they are often subjected to a lecture by some all-knowing person who invariably suggests that they simply don’t know enough to even ask the question. So only persons who come with your dispassionate unbiased viewpoint can ask about and engage with art? Interesting.

    In Jamaica, few persons outside of our mout-a-massy commentators want to take the necessary risk of offering analyses that might not fit with the status-quo. The very subject matter of the work in question raises a whole volume of issues about the various ways in which art emerges from as well as shapes our consciousness; having such intentional conversations are sorely needed among and between artists and non-artists alike. However, those conversations cannot happen when so many of us want to act as gatekeepers and to determine what questions and responses are allowed in the first place.

    I have my questions; I put them out there. What are yours? Let’s start there.

  6. Wayne Rodney Says:

    Your point did not elude me, I just disagree with it.

    In all humility I acknowledge your viewpoint, but absolutely disagree. My response was not intended to trivialize your question, and for the record a caricature is a very acceptable method of depicting a truth. There is an inescapable connection between the artist and the work. What is necessary to be revealed other than what is visible, is dependent on the artist, in my opinion. Furthermore there is no “elitism” on my part, my response was all inclusive. It would also do you good to not categorize peoples responses as “responses like yours”. You seem to have a box-fetish, meaning to say you have a tendency to take groups of people and have them conform to your rigid perception of who they are. So who’s really the elitist then?

    The context of the work is “Political”, how much further do you need it to be deconstructed until you are satisfied.

    You can say anything you want to say hiding behind the pseudonym “Long Bench”, you can vehemently rant and embody the same “mout a massie” traits you apparently detest, but clearly perpetuate.
    The artist is only vocal by choice. The duty of the artist is to create the art. Judging by the way you phrase your words, it would seem as if controversy enthralls you. The assaults you made on politicians, artists, commentators, men, the print industry, the modern day archetypes (superheroes) – alluded to as poppy-shows, the arrogant treatment of guests who have viewed your blog in an effort to make a contribution etc. is a firm indicator of what you’re really all about. All of this while anonymously posting. Why do you expect the artist in question, or any other person to expose themselves to the irrational wrath of belligerent individuals if you yourself are not prepared to do so?
    The artist already took a “Necessary Risk” by painting her mind. Once the canvas is out in the public it is up to the public to discuss it in a realm such as this blog or many other avenues.

    The IRONY it seems is that Miss Barnes is expected to now don a superhero costume of her own. If she does it should be her choice to do so.

    Did it also occur to you that the piece could have a different meaning than the one you ascribe to it. I see no need to re-iterate the points of my first post, everything I needed to say was there.

    I apologize if this response sounds scathing. I respect the fact that you have a blog and I think that you are sincerely using your intellect for the betterment of people according to your own ideals. However, your tone is abrasive and quite a few of your remarks are disrespectful. Very few people will read your incendiary remarks and detach themselves in order to comment. You have isolated a large group of people just because of the way you speak about them.
    Is that the most practical way to bring about the change you wish to see?

  7. leslie Says:

    longbench, why so angry? A little tolerance of others’ opinions might be in order. I do agree with Wayne, there is no need for the artist to explain herself or the meaning of her painting to anyone and in not doing so she is by no means a sell-out. Part of the beauty of art is your own interpretation of it, instead of being spoon fed the meaning behind it by the artist, an art critic or, yes, even a blogger.

  8. mike robinson Says:

    guess this blog isn’t just the masturbatory exercise in anonymous verbosity that longbench was hoping for…

    to quote picasso:
    ‘some answers are purely visual’

  9. longbench Says:

    Wayne: you have clearly come with the intention of defending “the artist.” I hope she/they appreciate your gallantry.

    We are not talking about the same things at all. You may want to consider that the specific work is not all that interesting to me. I find the issues raised by the way Natalie chose to represent herself – or really, the way she has been represented in the media accounts – to be far more worthy of conversation. It is entirely unfair and disingenuous of you to characterize my comments as “irrational wrath”, but I think you know that already. Caricature may be also an acceptable way of representing some truth, but exaggerating what I said in order to make your point was hardly necessary.

    You claim that “there is an inescapable connection between the artist and the work.” I am tempted to agree with you, but I also don’t know exactly what you mean by that, so I’ll defer to you on that one. Perhaps you have information that I don’t. That’s fine; share as you see fit.

    You also claim, “What is necessary to be revealed other than what is visible, is dependent on the artist, in my opinion.” I agree with you in the sense that these are choices that artists make.

    And that’s part of my point; there seems to be remarkable hesitation among Jamaican artists (by this particular artist, but also by others) about talking about one’s work – not in the way you insist on characterizing my comments (as “deconstructing”, “psychoanalyzing” any specific piece etc.) – but in terms of how this generation of Jacn artists are dealing with the politics of everyday life. I happen to like hearing and gaining insights into the various ways that people do this. Pointing out what I see as an inconsistency – intentional or not – in how she was responding to public comments/questions hardly suggests that this, or any artist, is “expected” to treat the viewing public like children and spoon-feed them the “real” message of whatever it was they created. And even if I did have such expectations, you are giving remarkable power to this one opinion, aren’t you?

    How Jacn artists relate to their environment – including the people in it – is going to vary. There’s no expectation that all will do this in the same way. So I don’t know where you’re going with that “Natalie as Superhero” thing.

    What I would love to see, which is what motivated the post in the first place, is more artists doing what this particular person intimates: being more engaged with the place and seeing themselves as accountable in some fashion. We have enough of those who think they should be painting/creating in some version of the ivory tower, plebians be damned. I’m tired of that. I’m also tired of Jamaican artists not being able to talk ABOUT their work without expected to be didactic (exactly what you are accusing me of here), or of hearing that Jamaican artists shouldn’t talk about their work. Neither approach is inspiring or useful, in my opinion.

    I’ll ignore all the cussing you directed my way. Scathing, yes you were. You are forgiven. Yes, the tone of the blog is decidedly acerbic and not a light touch of arrogance either. But, in light of all the conservative, syrupy, vacuous and thoroughly ill-informed commentary about Jamaica that permeates the blogosphere, I give my blogself complete permission to be frank, biased and to ignore all social conventions of being polite, in order to get to the things that I believe matters. Incendiary? Maybe. But I think that’s better than being lulled into a coma under false pretenses. It takes all kinds of strategies to make any kind of change; diversity is a strength, not a weakness. I’m only one voice in the mix of things. As long as there is a “mix”, I’ll do my thing, while you do yours.

    Thanks for the response. I do appreciate it!

  10. longbench Says:

    Leslie – Glad you stopped by. There’s no anger here; lots of other stuff that clearly irritated you, judging from your response, but no anger.

    Tolerance? Hmmmm. I accept that people have different opinions. I don’t think all opinions are equal, however. I am decidedly intolerant of opinions that justify the way things are; no patience for that.

    I agree with you that there’s no “need” for an artist to explain one’s work. And even if the person did, there’s still a chance that I wouldn’t agree with them. That’s just the nature of the beast. But that’s not what I was asking about, was it?

    “sell-out” – Let’s be clear. Those are your words not mine. To me, those are serious fighting words. I never said that, intimated that, or would ever make such a claim against anybody. That just reeks of a kind of group-think mentality that I find nauseating and dangerous.

    Mike – thank you for stopping by! Maybe next time you will have more to say.

  11. Wayne Rodney Says:

    I came upon your blog with an empty cup. Opinions formed thereafter were on the basis of what I’ve read. Perhaps there is chivalry involved, the kind that aspires towards courtesy towards fellow man and woman alike. That is in fact the lofty ideal which I strive towards. A lot of times I miss the mark, I am human and so I persevere. The world needs more chivalry and gallantry especially in these dire times of strife and global conflict. Jamaica sure needs it. Therefore I must applaud those who make our lives a little sweeter with their honey touch, a little honey is not bad, just not the aspartame and saccharine, (as you’ve pointed out). Whilst I yearn for the day, when people utilize critical thinking, instead of following talking heads or icons, I realize the process is a gradual one. Rocking the boat, and other upheavals are attention getters, but I’ve found that what works best is establishing a connectivity between people. I’ve found out the hard way on many occasions that people just don’t seem to have a favorable reaction to name calling, and being generalized. This is your show, and you can run it anyway you want. I’m glad for the opportunity to have spoken to a mind such as yours. There’s a fire in you that I can relate to Long Bench. You want to see artists in Jamaica display the same passion you have. What may be a simple contextual question for you might be to another person the difference between a mountain and a mole hill. Not saying that’s the case with this particular artist, but I’m sure you get the general idea.

    Also LB you and I do not need to be in agreement, that’s perfectly fine. I do not need you to bend to my will, why would you? You have a will of your own and it works great for you. I post for others who may stumble upon this blog like myself, I post because this subject is important to me. At the end of the day, what has been said here by either of us, and all others who contributed will either resonate with a passer by or it won’t. My conscience, and alas perhaps my vanity will not allow me to sit idly by, and not present the views I have shared.

    My comment about “Irrational Wrath” was partially aimed at you, more so it was directed at arbitrary outsiders in the “real world”, who artists may unfortunately encounter. I did so in the hopes of making a sublime point. (I feel as if I was at least somewhat successful in that regard because you mentioned it again) :
    “Accountability”.

    Accountable as an artist for what you’ve said even though it’s a fragment of the truth

    Accountable also for misunderstandings of what you’ve said

    I am but one drop of water in a vast ocean. You have the luxury of being behind a veil, but put yourself in the shoes of a person who is not behind one. Expose yourself to the torrential rain and being swept away in the proverbial current. My ideas aren’t even that radical. You spent a day arguing with me and I am but one. The political climate nurtures all sorts of people with all sorts of ideas and agendas. As I stated before words are subject to misinterpretation. Anything said can and will be interpreted subjectively.

    Is it better to present a picture that speaks a thousand words, or present a picture with a few guided words that detract and diminish hundreds more? In your very blog you accuse me of missing your point yet I don’t think I did. There are those who would use your words out of context maliciously, others unintentionally but to the same end. You were being as lucid as you could. This blog conversation has spanned an entire day and consumed mental energy, on everybody’s’ part. I was prepared for that, maybe some artists just don’t want to upset their equilibrium that way. That’s perfectly okay.
    As far as I’m concerned the artistic obligation terminates upon completion of the work of art. Anything after that is as they say “Brawta.” I’ve said that already so I won’t dwell.
    “Just something to think about.” If you don’t like it throw it away, might be good for someone else. Your truth is what matters in your life, no judgment there.

    A couple points to touch on.

    1. When I referred to a “psychoanalytical expose” I was not exaggerating, that’s what it feels like to some people. There’s probably no such thing as a simple question, it’s just how deep you want to take it. Never underestimate the type of tunneling a person may need to do. This statement hints towards a previous one that caused you uncertainty, “there is an inescapable connection between the artist and the work.”
    2. I quote you “And even if I did have such expectations, you are giving remarkable power to this one opinion, aren’t you?” : Yes, I am, and isn’t that great! I normally don’t fan the flames, but I’ve made an exception in this case, and it’s turned into quite an interesting discussion. I thank you.

    I hope that whenever this response finds you, you will be well. Rather than butting heads on this issue, if I do have the opportunity to post here again I’d probably keep things in the arena of the actual “Justice League” composition. It would be nice to discuss the art and not the artist.

    Cheers.

  12. longbench Says:

    Wayne: …and here I was thinking that I had cornered the market on long posts :-).

    Thanks for staying engaged and for spending the time and energy to communicate your ideas that are clearly deeply-felt. You have certainly offered me and other readers a lot to think about, and raised issues about that i had not thought thru, or even as carefully, as I need to. I appreciate it more than you probably know.

    On another note entirely: Is it a coincidence that the Gleaner featured you and your work this past Sunday? Your work based on the Tarot is fascinating. An anecdote: when I was first introduced to Tarot by another Cbn friend many years ago, I chose a non-traditional deck, and we often wondered what a Cbn deck would look like, or even how we might represent aspects of Cbn life through the use of the Tarot symbology. Right around then, Lorna Goodison’s book “Baby Mother and the King of Swords” came out! We thought we were onto something, but soon abandoned it for other idle musings. I look forward to seeing all or parts of this particular collection.

    Now, back to an earlier question you posed to me about the art: I did consider other interpretations of the work, albeit briefly. For one, the painting appears to humanize the subjects themselves; it raises the question of whether they are even cognizant of their own “inner superhero”, and whether or not people who have committed themselves to public service in the way these particular characters have, might not already [or need to] have a little bit of a superhero in all of them. But, having to witness all the antics some of these characters engage in far too often, I was not feeling to give them the benefit of the doubt…


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